Sunday Link Fest 1: Stuff I meant to blog about but didn’t — well not quite.

I don’t know how my comrades-in-blog deal with this one, but in my surfing through the days (and weeks and months) I come across tons of interesting items that seems obviously blog prompts.¤*

¤This post has just succumbed to the impulse that overcame a marvellous old Journal of Irreproducible Results article on a theory of footnotes, in which the text petered out half a sentence in, overwhelmed by the nested array of information, notes and notes on notes that consumed the entire space allocation.  Links to cool stuff coming in the next post.  Below find YAUPBDMSM — Yet Another Post Bewailing the Death of the MainStream Media.

*This**, btw, is the nub of the argument that the blogosphere is not a replacement for actual journalism, but an extension of it. Through my recent entry into the TwitterDome, I’ve been getting a sort of strobed exposure to the argument that the digital transformation of media of which the blogosphere is a prominent part has eliminated not just the financial model of MSM journalism, but most of the justification for it as well.

This is nonsense of course — not the financial part, which is obviously happening — but the notion that we needn’t figure out how to create a digital-era infrastsructure for sustained, full-time, professional journalism, because “we media” will solve all our problems for us.

Now, I know that merely calling something nonsense is not in fact a substitute for a properly constructed argument to demonstrate the incoherence of a position.  Part of the reason I’m not doing it here is that this post is supposed to be a quicky Sunday dump of fun stuff to read, but the real reasons are (a) that this debate’s been going on for a while, and from what I can glimpse from a skein of twitter messages and links is that it has entered the heat dominating light phase.  (That gives me another reason to mention Sean Carroll’s upcoming book on time and cosmology.  Much of the story there turns on the fact of entropy — and I’m taking this particular argument as an example of an intellectual gas system that has very rapidly evolved from a low-high entropy state.  Block that Metaphor! alert.)

But for an example of the impending heat death of the argument I’ll offer this essay by Robert Picard, on the value of journalists.  I read it as carefully as I could and could find no real argument there, but a ton of warming blather.  I particularly admired the assertion that news gathering is simply not hard anymore, and that hence MSM should rescue itself by specializing.  Seriously!

As I noted in a derisive tweet on the subject (which does not substitute for real argument either) the suggestion that the Boston Globe can save itself by becoming the newspaper of record for medicine and education is at once incredibly banal (Look: Boston has universities and hospitals. That’s what the paper should write about!) — and an incredibly narrow understanding of media.  It defines stories by topic…and not by any of the other qualities that unify different elements of information, like place (Boston) or end-use (how to, filtering, civic participation and so on.)

All in all, this kind of worthy (if disdainful of craft) writing reads to this occasionally working journalist and writer as the kind of stuff  a life-long virgin would offer as advice to couples seeking to invigorate the bedroom.  (Have you thought of naughty costumes?…)

An antidote to much of the easy rhetoric on all of this can be found in a couple of Jason Pontin’s posts on this subject.  One, which aroused considerable response, was his, to-my-eyes, rather anodyne prescription for saving at least his end of conventional media, the semi-specialized lay or mass publication. The other was his delightfully constructed essay-in-44-tweets in response to the criticism his first post had evoked.

To all this I will add one last thought.  I teach in program that seeks to train professional journalists and writers, as do a number of those who champion the distributed journalism model.  Such programs are prospering now — the MIT Grad Program in Science Writing’s applicant pool bumps up and down a little, but has both close to doubled in size since its first class was admitted eight years ago, and the quality of the applicants this year was as high as I can ever recall it; other programs report similar strong interest.

This is in part because we are very good at what we do, if I may says so as shouldn’t.  But another reason is that the ways I got my training as a writer, a journalist, a film-maker and someone focused on one beat, science, no longer exist.

I had extensive starting stints as an intern and stringer at Time Inc. bureaus.  I worked an entry level reporter’s job at a monthly magazine within the Time Inc. empire for two years. I received ten months paid training in radio and television at WGBH.  My first book was written for a really talented editor (Rick Kot), who actually edited — and while many still do at NY publishing houses, many do not.

All this is to say that it was possible not all that long ago to learn one’s journlistic trade in large institutions that possessed institutional memory, a great deal of accumulated trade knowledge, and formal structures to transfer such knowledge from one generation to the next.  I learned on the job, in other words, with a lot of help.

That’s now largely gone.  In its place, J-schools and programs like MIT’s offer a basic-training approach to what used to be learned in something of an apprentice system.

The fact that increasingly people seek out such programs, including those with some number years writing as free-lancers or in the alt-weekly world, suggests to me that we both offer a real boost to our student’s thinking and writing…and that rational actors in the world of journalism have concluded that for all the cost of taking an expensive year out of the workforce, it still makes sense to do so.

And in fact, so far at least, that conclusion is true.  Our graduates go out and get work. Actual, paid writing work coverning science and technology.  So do those of our major competitor programs.  They find such work  because they have gained specific skills that enable them to find and tell stories in an effective, economical manner…and because full time coverage of stories and beats still turns out to be of value in the information marketplace.

Institutions matter, in other words, even if the forms of institutions and individuals’ relationships to them shift.  And in science writing and journalism writ large, the apparatus of editorial effort and the interaction of writers with other writers and their editors produces important and economically valuable work.

Hey — it’s Sunday.  You should expect a sermon.

**In the spirit of the JIRR article referenced above, a second order note.  “This” = the missing trove of links to actual reported and constructed stories upon which this or any blogger may comment.

Image: Gustave Moreau, “Galatea,” 1880

Explore posts in the same categories: journalism, Journalism and its discontents, MSM nonsense, science writing, Uncategorized, words mattter, Writing

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